The Steelers seem to have a penchant for finding players no one in the NFL seems to want. They also have a penchant for finding players that have talents that no one in the NCAA seemed to recognize. Franco Harris played behind Lydell Mitchell at Penn State. Mitchell was more of a Paterno type back and fit his system well. Franco was more of a blocker and an afterthought. The Steelers drafted Harris first in 1972. Before Franco Harris the Steelers never made the playoffs. With Franco Harris the Steelers won 4 Super Bowl titles and made the NFL Playoffs repeatedly.
Willie Parker had an even longer climb. After a decent freshman season at UNC Parker became a forgotten man. Coach John Bunting benched Parker until he “bulked up” to fit in with Bunting’s power running attack. When Parker didn’t bulk he sat. After being passed by all 32 NFL teams in all 7 rounds of the draft Parker showed up in Latrobe as a free agent RB. It was there he impressed Coach Bill Cowher with his toughness and speed and he earned a spot on the Steelers 2004 53. Parker didn’t earn a helmet through the first 15 games. In the final game of the 2004 season Cowher activated him in a meaningless game at Buffalo after the Steelers had already locked up the number 1 seed throughout the playoffs. Parker ran for 102 yards in 3 quarters including a 58 yard burst that was the first official Fast Willie sighting.
In 2005 Parker earned a helmet and took over the role of starter from veteran Jerome Bettis. Parker continued to learn at Bettis side. His 1200 yards in 2005 led the Steelers. He was the set up man and Bettis was the closer. The Steelers roared into the playoffs on a streak that would send them to Detroit into Super Bowl XL. On the second play from scrimmage in the second half Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt called Counter 34 Pike. Parker burst through the hole and ran to daylight. 75 yards and a dive later and the Steelers had a 14-3 lead and some breathing room on their way to a Super Bowl title. Parker’s image running away from Seattle defenders and to Lombardi 5 would be etched in the minds of Steeler Nation forever. Parker gave his ring from Super Bowl XL to his father Willie Parker Sr.
In 2006 Parker signed his first big NFL contract. The 4 year deal netted him a modest 13.6 million. Parker set off to earn every penny. In a November home game against the Saints in 2006 Parker ripped off runs of 72 and 76 yards leading to a 38-31 victory. His total of 213 yards was only 5 shy of the all time Steelers record for one game held by the immaculate John “Frenchy” Fuqua. Later in December Parker broke that record with 223 yards against the sad sack Cleveland Browns. Parker was removed after 3 quarters or he may have run for 300 that day. In 2007 Parker was leading the league in rushing when he broke his fibula and possibly cost the Steelers a chance to advance in the playoffs as journeyman Najeh Davenport wasn’t up to the task to lead the running attack. 2008 saw Parker struggle with injury but his grit and determination kept him focused. By the time the playoffs rolled around Fast Willie Parker was ready. He hung 146 yards and 2 TD’s on San Diego in the Divisional Playoff round en route to a victory in Super Bowl XLIII. It was the Steelers 6 world title and Parker’s second.
With 2007 #1 pick Rashard Mendenhall healthy and Parker again banged up in 2009, Mendenhall emerged and Parker was relegated to back-up status. Disappointed, Parker did not make too many waves and was a team player and leader. He taught Mendenhall everything he knew and everything Bettis had taught him. When an article was released after the 2009 season that said Parker was bitter he immediately phoned the Steelers and set up a meeting with Mike Tomlin. While “salty” Parker publically stated he could never be bitter and he understood it was a business. Hope was still abounding in the Steeler Nation that somehow Parker would sign a smaller contract with the Steelers (like Bettis) and finish his career in Pittsburgh. Alas, that was not meant to be. Parker signed a one year 3.1 million dollar contract with Washington today. God speed Fast Willie! The Steeler Nation hopes you supplant LJ and Portis in Washington, earn every penny of the 3.1 million and lead Washington to a playoff spot over the hated Dallas Cowboys. Your 75 yard Super Bowl jaunt, the 146 you hung on San Diego and your dogged determination and spirit will make sure you go down as a hero in the annals of Steeler history.